Lying to the person in the mirror
After I had gained some social skills, I wanted to make up for lost time. Along the way, I met many interesting people, one of them being a middle aged conman. When talking to people, I try not to expect; this makes people feel comfortable around me, and often they confide in me. My conman acquaintance tried to pull a few scams on me, after failing he started to confide in me. He enjoyed telling stories but then sometimes he would give me advice. Never bullshit yourself, he said suddenly. Knowing his reputation as a bullshitter I was baffled, I then asked him what did he mean. His blue eyes turn hard, which signaled he was going to have a serious talk with me.
He started his monolog with, You can lie to your mother, you can lie to your father, you can lie to your brothers and sisters, you can lie to your friends. You can go to church, stand up, lie about what a great guy you are. Probably they even believe all of your lies. But there is one person you must never lie to, do you know who that is? I asked myself, who is that person I should never lie to? No, I replied.
The man who stares back at you from the mirror laughed the conman. And do you know who people lie to the most? He asked. No, I replied. Themselves he sneered. The man standing up in church believes his BS. He lies to himself, when he visits hookers, hits his wife or borrows church funds, he tells himself; Satan made me do it. He actually believes this rubbish. The conman demanded, Do you know why he lies to himself? Curious to see where this was going, I replied No.
Because he is a fucking coward, he mockingly laughed. They lie to themselves because they can’t admit to themselves who they are. Myself, I can get up every morning and look into the mirror. While I am looking into the mirror, I can look at the man staring back at me in the eye. I have the courage to say to him; you have done some disgusting things in your life. You are a thief, liar, sometimes a drunkard and a wife-beater. Now I don’t have to confess these things to anyone, but I have, to be honest with myself.
Rationalization is the substitution of a safe and reasonable explanation for the true (but threatening) cause of the behavior.
My conman friend had observed what psychologists call rationalization; we lie to ourselves. It takes two forms. The first is when we attempt to justify our actions which violate rules of society. The second is when we try to match our internal beliefs with events which occur around us. Both work using similar mechanisms. He was able to make this observation because understanding this is the key to manipulation.
Micheal Grazzaniga’s split-brain experiments made him the father of cognitive neuroscience. His discoveries resulted from experiments with split-brain patients. Split-brain refers to patients whose right and left hemisphere of the brain are no longer attached, it is a result of brain trauma or brain surgery to correct mental disorders. Personally, I find it surprising that people with split-brains can function normally and lead productive lives, my intuitions tells me that they should be comatose. His experiments revealed that there is an interpreter which attempts to rationalize a person’s beliefs with his actual experiences. The famous chicken claw experiment illustrates this.
We showed a split-brain patient two pictures: To his right visual field, a chicken claw, so the left hemisphere saw only the claw picture, and to the left visual field, a snow scene, so the right hemisphere saw only that. He was then asked to choose a picture from an array placed in full view in front of him, which both hemispheres could see. His left hand pointed to a shovel (which was the most appropriate answer for the snow scene) and his right hand pointed to a chicken (the most appropriate answer for the chicken claw).
We ashed why he chose those items. His left-hemisphere speech center replied, “Oh that’s simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken” easily explaining what it new. It had seen the chicken claw. Then, looking down at his left hand pointing to the shovel, without missing a beat, he said, “And you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.” Immediately, the that left brain, observing the left hand’s response without the knowledge of why it had picked that item,
What was interesting was that the left hemisphere did not say, “I don’t know,” which was the correct answer. It made up a post hoc answer that fit the situation. It confabulated, taking cues from what it knew and putting them together in an answer that made sense.
We called this left-hemisphere process the interpreter. It is the left hemisphere that engages in the human tendency to find order in chaos, that tries to fit everything into a story and put it into a context. It seems driven to hypothesize about the structure of the world even in the face of evidence that no pattern exists. Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain
Micheal Grazzaniga’s experiments make us uncomfortable because they show our perceptions of reality differ significantly from reality. Human being believe they are logical; they are a unique animal. As a result, even academics are hostile to Steven Pinker’s work like the The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature that shows many of our beliefs are preprogrammed. This makes many academics uncomfortable because it shows that education can not completely change beliefs. On the other hand, the fact that we are preprogrammed to certain behaviors like prejudice does not justify this behavior. We can override this with our logical parts of the mind.
Instinctively we know that our perceptions of reality are flawed. One of my favorite works of fiction is Only When I Larf by Len Deighton. It is a humorous book about three con artists. What makes the book funny is each of the three con artists will describe the same event. Their interpretation of the event differs so much that it is like they are describing different events. Subconsciously, everyone has a slightly different perception of reality, but we are in denial about it. Of course, it is always our perception of reality which is the correct one
Twenty years later, I stumbled across a book entitled The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely a Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics. The book isn’t as good as his other books, but its title matches the observations of my conman friend. Professor Ariel’s interest in dishonest behavior started after the Enron scandal. He then asked himself these questions. What causes dishonesty? Are the conventional theories of dishonesty wrong?
A simplified theory of why we are dishonest goes like this. Potential criminals wonder around; they look for items to steal. Every item they do a mental evaluation where they ask these two questions, how much is the item worth? What is the risk of getting caught? Our potential criminal then does a risk calculation, if the potential profit is greater than the risk, he steals the item. I am at work, the petty cash box is open an unattended, I know there are no hidden cameras. The risk of me getting caught is zero. Logically I should grab all of the money out of the box and walk away.
There is only one problem with that theory; it doesn’t match reality. People rarely steal the petty cash at work, but people have no qualms about taking stationery supplies, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, etc. from work. Dan Ariely believed the reason why people take these items instead of money is to be able to rationalize the theft. If I steal money, it is harder to lie to justify the theft as opposed to if I take a stapler or pencil from work.
To test his theory, Dan Ariely that people are more inclined to steal items where they can rationalize their theft, he did this simple experiment. He secretly placed in communal refrigerators six-packs of Coca-Cola of cookies and a plate full of dollar bills. He then went back the next day to see which items did people prefer to steal, junk food or dollar bills. To his surprise, he discovered that people preferred to take the junk food as opposed to the dollar bills. The experiment proved that people’s dishonesty was irrational.
The next thing Dan Ariely set out to test was the question, do we lie to ourselves? He was taking an IQ test in a magazine after he completed a question, he would check the answer in the back of the magazine. He noticed that his eyes had a tendency to drift towards the answer of the next question, this possibly increased his chances of getting the next question right. The test ranked him a genius; he boasted about it to his friends. He later pondered the following questions.
- did peaking at the next answer affect his result?
- was he a genius?
- was there a way he could use a similar idea to see if people deceive themselves?
Professor Dan Ariely setup an experiment with two groups. The first group he provided them with a test with an answer key, the second group he provided them with the same test without an answer key. After administering the test, he discovered that the first group scored higher which proved when given the opportunity people will cheat. But how to test if people deceived themselves about their abilities? He told both groups that he would be administering a similar test and to predict how they would score on this test. Both groups predicted they would score similar to how they scored on the first test. The result of the experiment indicates that people subconsciously deceive themselves about their abilities.
The deception of others has obvious advantages but what would be the advantage of self-deception?
The first advantage is in a conflict situation; our evolutionary past is a violent one. If two opponents have approximately the same skills, the one who is better at self-deception will have a greater chance of winning the fight. The person who overestimates his abilities will be more sure about his decisions, and that means he will act with certainty.
The second advantage is when it comes to deceiving an opponent, bluffing. Consciously and subconsciously each of them will be evaluating each other. Part of this evaluation will be how confident his opponent appears, the opponent who is better at self-deception will seem to be more confident.
I experienced this when I unintentionally deceived myself in a medium stakes poker hand. I was playing draw poker, I looked at my hand and saw four hearts and a club, a possible flush. I discarded the club, and on the draw, I caught another heart which meant I had a flush. I didn’t look at my hand for the rest of the game. My opponent meanwhile had a straight after vigorous betting I called. He confidently showed his hand, a straight. I then laughed and flipped over my hand showing a heart flush and then drew in the pot. It was my turn to deal next when I collected the cards to my shock two of the cards in my hand separated to reveal a diamond instead of a heart. My opponent and everyone else in the game didn’t notice the diamond because I was successful at deceiving myself which made it easier to deceive them unintentionally.
Drug addiction and anorexia are similar disorders. Anorexia from a psychological perspective is interesting in that it does not provide an actual high like drug addiction, but the psychological process is similar.
With both addiction and anorexia, initially, the person benefits from the behavior. The drug will enable the person to deal with social situations better. The drug user will then start to associate taking drugs a positive feeling. Likewise, the person suffering from anorexia, initially eating less caused a positive effect, losing weight caused them to look better and feel better.
At some point in time, this behavior no longer benefits the person; it becomes self-destructive. When the self-destructive behavior is identified, the person will attempt to rationalize it. Eventually, the person might admit the behavior is destructive. Paradoxically they consciously know it is destructive; subconsciously they are in denial. Addiction is the best example since it is the most obvious. It is traumatic for both the victim and their loved ones.
Self-honesty is a lifelong process. The biggest problem is our friends unintentionally deceive us. Instinctively you want your friends to feel good; you subconsciously have a desire to justify their failures. Our enemies when judging us are often more honest than our friends. An enemy makes a personal attack which hurts you, most likely it is the truth. Examining the pain and seeing what is causing it will often reveal a character flaw.
Honest self-examination is a continuous process. The new left coupled with the politically correct is more concerned about feeling good instead of reality. Example, instead of addressing the problem of obesity, run a fat acceptance campaign. Instead of addressing an issue, accuse the person of hurting your feelings. It is a denial of reality.
The book American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson reveals a person with a complex character who was capable of self-honesty. Concerning the slavery in USA, Jefferson was honest enough to admit the practice of slavery was immoral. On the other hand, the American economy was depended too much on slavery to be eliminated. He was honest enough to admit that. The modern left by contrast is incapable of self-honesty. They perpetuate the The Myth of the Noble Savage while using Jefferson’s self-honesty to attack him. Primitive cultures are extremely violent and in the case of the North American natives, they also practiced slavery. The politically correct will attempt to rationalize the behavior of these primitive cultures. The reality is slavery is slavery and violence is violence regardless who is practicing it.
In one of my previous posts I talked about Confront fear - Gain freedom. Often we lie to ourselves because our true nature scares us. Facing our fears requires a self-honesty and courage. Being self-honest makes us better people and at the same time makes us less vulnerable to manipulation. The key to exploiting people is knowing the lies they tell themselves.
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